Review: Althea Romeo-Mark’s If Only the Dust Would Settle

(review written by Joanne C. Hillhouse; originally published in 2010 in the Daily Observer)

Althea Romeo-Mark has led a fascinating life. Don’t take my word for it, her latest publication – If Only the Dust Would Settle – tells the tale. Part poetry collection, part memoir, it’s thoroughly engaging capturing not only the character of the various places she’s inhabited in her journeying, but the ways they – Antigua, the USVI, the US, Liberia, England, and Switzerland – have inhabited her. I first found Romeo-Mark’s poetry in collections like The Caribbean Writer and Calabash, my eyes drawn as much by the fact that she was Antiguan as by the poetry itself. In time, we connected via the internet and I came to know something of her story. Receiving If Only the Dust would Settle in the mail this week and having it elbow its way to the top of my reading list, I learned that I didn’t know the half of it. I learned that Romeo-Mark may have left Antigua at a very young age, but it never left her. I learned something of the complexities – and indignities – of finding home away from home. I learned that Romeo-Mark has a gift as a writer for making physical, emotional, thematic, and spatial connections. My favourite poem in the collection is the title piece which though written to and of Liberia, had me ruminating on Haiti – and not just because the earthquake ravaged country happens to be in the news. In this poem, she writes affectionately of what is beautiful about Liberia; also of its chronic unsettledness. Haiti, the first free country in our hemisphere; Liberia, a haven for freed Africans…both tragic heroes of an epic tale. In the case of the former, its plagues are not God-sent because of a devlish alliance as has been stated – unless the authors of such nonsense are suggesting that God endorsed slavery and colonial oppression – rather stem in part from unfriendly policies ‘repaying’ former colonial masters a debt that already paid in blood. In the case of the latter, as explained in the Liberia essay – one of five essays punctuating the work and providing insight into each of Romeo-Mark’s homes – the tensions were class based and the politics equally violent, forcing Mark and her children to flee the country with a suitcase in hand and soldiers at their heels. I liked the title poem, because it heartbreakingly transmits the human tragedy: “…stumbled over the dead/while fleeing to safety, marched long/across borders, battling searing sun/and battering rain, skirted dogs/devouring the flesh of swollen corpses.” And amidst the vivid imagery, this searing line, “unsettled, they cling to scraps of hope.” This is perhaps the bleakest of the poems; not far behind may be her writings while a refugee in England. She writes in ‘Bittersweet Interlude’, “loss of independence/life in limbo/depending on/ the generosity of others/is hard to swallow, but/it is not death./It is not death.” This book is also interesting, as noted, for the insight it offers to the immigrant experience. In the opening essay, ‘The Caribbean Scene’, Romeo-Mark references the immigrant status of her ancestors, from the Brits and the Africans who had shaped the land to her Dominican Republic-born dad and her USVI-born mom. Then, her earliest experience: “It struck me one day that I had left Antigua, my birth home, when a school mate in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, ridiculed my pronunciation.” Language re-emerges in the final chapter, not purely for literary symmetry, but because she was literally in a country where language kept her on the outside of things. Writing from Switzerland, she mused, “If you speak the dialect, you will be accepted into the fold.” In the latter case, she never quite got the hang of it; but in numerous ways she still managed to make Switzerland home as the humorous ‘I Becoming Swiss’ illustrates: “I drinking wine instead of rum,/eating zopf instead of raisin bun./I buying lamb in the shop by gram./Imagine that. And I watching me weight.” And for those that would pour diesel into our African roots, here’s an interesting insight, even in alien places it was this commonality that gave her community. Writing of her time in America, which also produced melancholy works like ‘Can I Borrow a Smile?’ she noted, “African students became my friends. Although we came from different sides of the world, I felt at home with them. We shared a common spirit, a cultural bond…” And indeed, there were even more obvious echoes. “When the electricity was rationed, I learned to cook on coal pots like my grandparents did,” she recalled in her essay, ‘The Liberian Scene’. Even if none of these themes interest you, if you love words, and the way they’re strung together to illuminate life, you’ll like this book. In ‘Manna’, Romeo-Mark writes, “a flurrying brown mass/of antflies/hijack the night/Hypnotized/by glaring street lights/they swarm to the glow./Wings sizzle./They drop like fallen angels/to the ground.” This could just be about insects, but having read in the introductory essay of the ordeal of having her husband taken in the night, narrowly escaping death, of the political unrest that claimed so many lives, I read more. Then there is ‘Tradition’ which is Antiguan to the core: “The funeral is over./Men gather at a nearby bar,/drink straight rounds of rum/in honour of the dead,/quench their burning thirst/and shoveled pain under raucous laughter.” There’s her summing up of the unrest in Liberia with this reference to home: “We pray to ride out the storm/’cause a revolution, like a hurricane can/change directions, leave death and destruction/in its path as it fights to stay alive.” And for pure voyeuristic appeal, there’s ‘The Kiss’: “She sucks his lips,/lingering as if/siphoning life.”

Check out this poetry workshop with Althea Romeo Mark at the Caribbean Literary Salon .

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